Monday, 16 January 2012

The Exiles of Selousia

Melina rose and fell above me as she slipped into orgasm. It was strange, how she entered into them - not with the usual build-up and release of all the girls I’d known before her - but as if she was passing through, their peak nearly unobservable, followed by a long slow descent. I could feel her gold rings press into my shoulders, her long nails, painted red, digging in ever so slightly into the flesh, as if she was trying to anchor herself in the moment, and stay still; just for a little while.

She loosened her grip as the last ripples passed, and her body relaxed on top of me. Her mind, though, was already on the move, I could tell. ‘Let’s go to Covent Garden,’ she said.

‘Sure. Any reason?’

‘Oh, I just fancy it. Besides, you can always find some of my lot there. I don’t know why, but every time I go, I see somebody I know from way back.’

Her lot. The people of Selousia: the country that no longer exists.

Not many people have heard of Selousia. It was barely noticeable on any map; a tiny country squeezed between the borders of two much larger neighbours in Southern Africa. It would have been called a city-state if it had anything resembling a city at its centre. But there was no centre really, as far as I could tell from the things Melina had told me. Just homesteads, spread out over the acres; a little hub of administrative buildings and shops. Several social clubs. At least, that’s what white Selousia consisted of. Black Selousia was something else entirely, and of which Melina could tell me little. Townships of people, tenants on land that had belonged to their ancestors and had never been sold, hemmed in by security fences and armed checkpoints. Most of the men-folk worked underground in the mines, helping to generate a wealth they did not share in. For Selousia, a seemingly insignificant country born out of a clause in a border treaty at the end of the Nineteenth Century, had been found half a century later to contain the largest concentration of uncombined platinum deposits in the world. And this sudden multiplication of value of the land had resulted in one of the most severe examples of racial segregation in all of Africa. One that had not come to an end until just ten years ago.

‘Come on, lazybones, get dressed. We’ll catch the bus.’

Melina’s accent was distinctive. Although obviously related to that of South Africa or Zimbabwe, it also echoed of New Zealand, or the Falkland Islands even. Ultimately however, it was unique to itself, with its clipped vowels and consonants that buzzed, with the letter Z replacing some of the softer-sounding ones like F and S. All you could say for definite about it was that it was colonial: the sound of something having been transplanted and, in the heat of the sun, mutated.

Selousia was the West’s little secret. It’s very obscurity meant that there was little pressure to impose sanctions, and so the trade in platinum continued for decades, with the white settler families lucky enough to find it hidden within land they claimed to be theirs becoming very wealthy indeed. And, on the whole, they exchanged their platinum for gold. Their lifestyle was ostentatious: visibly, vulgarly so. To look at old photographs of white Selousia is to look at what seems to be a laughable caricature from a bygone age of the nouveau riche. Even the grandmothers are blinged to the max. Little children, as Melina was in the photo she showed me, wear chunky gold chains round their tiny necks.

It was a strange world they made for themselves. A strange, sad world. Stranded in their tiny country with so much money but very little to do, except drink. Drink and fuck. Melina told me she lost her virginity when she was thirteen to her cousin. This was not unusual in Selousia. Her best friend, she said, had, as an adult, slept with her own brother when drunk. And although thoroughly conservative in its belief in the primacy of marriage, fidelity was rarely observed. It was not considered particularly wrong to sleep with the wife of a friend, it seems: just thoroughly bad manners to be too obvious about it. Eventually, after the parties in the large ranch-houses, when all were too drunk to go home, most would end up in a guest bedroom with someone that they had not come with, vaguely wondering where their partner was, and who they were with, as they themselves cheated on them.

I watched her as she got dressed in front of the window. Incredible to think I had a girlfriend this beautiful, I tried to tell myself. But she wasn’t my girlfriend, not really. Although to watch us, it would seem as if we were together, perhaps, if you didn’t look too closely. Yet I knew she could never belong to me, or anybody. She was from Selousia: the country that no longer existed. Now she was an exile, as were all her kind, and like all of them, she was just passing through.

Still, I marvelled at her body then. Muscular; toned, from a life lived outdoors; her posture straight, as if she had lessons. Her eyes were blue: a sad deep shade that made them seem as if they were overfull, and would weep blue tears at any moment. A round face, with a small mouth, that made everything around it crease when she smiled, from the bottom of her chin to the tip of her nose. Her skin was dark: a strange reddish-brown that made her seem never quite tanned, but always burned. Her hair was blonde, bleached in the sun so that it was almost white. Curiously, so too was her pubic hair, left to grow longer than is the fashion for girls like Melina these days. She had told me that the youngsters often sunbathed naked together on a Saturday afternoon, and would swim in the pools of their rich daddies’ houses without a stitch on. But then, what was the point in covering up? They knew they would ultimately sleep with each other out of boredom anyway, just as their parents’ and grandparents’ generations had done.

Melina pulled a top down over herself. It was a quite plain item of clothing, but something about the way she wore it told me that it had cost money. She just had a way about her that meant that, in your mind, you could always see the price tag. But it was not unique to her; over the weeks that I had been seeing her, she had introduced me to some of the other exiles of Selousia who drifted through London, and it was the same with all of them. Everything they wore, everything they owned, let out a silent scream of ‘money!’ They could never be cool. They carried the aura of Thatcher’s Britain: of yuppies and Sloane rangers. I don’t think they were trying to. They just couldn’t help it.

I had met Melina’s sister the night before, in a wine bar, naturally. She had come with a man who was under the delusion he was her boyfriend. But, like Melina, you could tell: she was just passing through.

Her name was Rozi, and like Melina, worked in the City. She was older than her sister, and her sun-bleached hair was turning the white of age: wiry and brittle. Her features were different too. Her nose was prominent and hooked, and I couldn’t help but wonder if they really shared both parents.

‘So you’re Melina’s new fella then?’ said her man to me. He must think of himself as Rozi’s ‘fella’, the poor sod, I thought.

‘Yeah, yeah I am,’ I said, as they descended into sisterly chitchat that no man could ever penetrate, except maybe another former citizen of Selousia. I knew if he hadn’t got it yet, I could never explain. ‘So how long have you been seeing Rozi?’

‘Oh, three months or so. But she’s going to Munich for a bit, ’cos of work, a transfer or something, so I don’t know what’s going to happen. We’ll try and stay in touch and hang on in there, though…’

Of course Rozi was moving on. The exiles of Selousia always moved on. They had no home anywhere now, and something compelled them to keep moving, across the planet, from city to city: always restless, always making money. Visa restrictions never seemed to apply to the exiles of Selousia. Somehow they always ended up with work wherever they went: good work that paid well. Well enough to rent for longer than they stayed. The loss of their land seemed to have bought them the freedom of the world. For those without a country, there could be no borders.

I knew that Melina would be gone soon, and for the first time I really thought about it as we said our goodbyes that night. I didn’t want her to go, I really didn’t. It wasn’t that I loved her. She had a shallow streak: a hunger to be near money that would mean she would cancel a date at the last minute just to go to a dinner thrown by strangers, if they were worth enough, and that undermined her too much for me to ever love her, really. But I liked having her around. She made my world a little brighter.

Their accents got thicker in each other’s presence. They talked at speed, much of it incomprehensible. Still, I knew they were talking about the other exiles, separated by distance, all of them somewhere new this year, this season, this month. ‘Zo ja Maria zed to give you her love, ja, she’s in Chicago now, she’s doing rilly well, rilly rilly well, ja, got promoted and transferred, zed she saw Derek in Ottawa at Chriztmas…’

It was a beautiful day in Covent Garden as we arrived. And she was beautiful too. She was telling me about the time she spent in Prague a year or so ago, and her face was glowing with excitement at the memory. And then she said, as if it were nothing: ‘You do know I’m going to Helsinki in a fortnight’s time, don’t you? Work.’

I didn’t know what to say. Even though I knew it was coming, it still hit me in the chest. Could she really think she could get away with being so blasé: that it would mean nothing? But already she wasn’t even paying attention to me. She was skipping along and waving at a man in expensive sunglasses and khaki shorts by a flower-stall, who had skin like hers, and hair only slightly darker. They probably slept together once, I thought to myself, as they hugged and talked about themselves. Jobs they had; where they had been; where they were going; people they had seen not too long ago, in a different city far away. As the morning went on, more exiles would emerge and join them, and they would talk, and share memories of Selousia, before inevitably, they would have to move on. They were just passing through, but Covent Garden was a crossroads where they could meet, and rest awhile, and rebuild Selousia, if only in words and dreams.

It had been a bloody overthrow in the end. The black miners had tired of their poverty, and realising that no amount of firepower could match their numbers, killed their foremen. Then, organised into gangs, they surrounded and broke into the homes of those who owned the mines. In front of their families, a machete at their neck, they were offered a choice. Surrender ownership of the mine, or die. Melina saw her own father beheaded in front of her, in their parlour.

After that awful night, the white population of Selousia began its exile. Under black rule the country changed its name, and Selousia was no more. At last the miners hoped to possess the fortune that the platinum mines generated. It was not to be. What the old white owners had known but not told even their families was that all the biggest mines were nearly depleted. Selousia was dying anyway; its disappearance was inevitable. They had made no plans for their future: maybe they longed for the death of Selousia, and for their own.

I saw Melina just twice before she went, once for a rather miserable dinner date where neither of us knew what to say, and again the night before she left. She came round to see me: for a goodbye fuck, it seemed.

She clung on that much harder that night, and her long red nails drew blood, while her deep blue eyes cried real tears when I held her close to me afterwards.

‘I’d better go,’ she said, finally.

‘OK,’ I said. But I could not let her go. ‘Don’t. Stay.’

She shook her head, tears flying from her face, as she pushed my arms apart and climbed off the bed.

I watched her get dressed one last time. And in that moment, it seemed, she was in no hurry to get somewhere. Each item of clothing was dragged on slowly. I don’t think she wanted to go.

But she did. Neither of us said anything as she closed the door. I never saw her again.

Lying on the bed, watching the first light of the new day slip through the filter of the window blinds, I could still smell her perfume and her sweat on the bed. I had followed the indentation in the bed where she had lain; felt the warmth that she had left, until it finally went cold. Still I ran my hand over and over. And then, I found it. A hair: a sun-bleached pubic hair no less. I clamped it tight between my thumb and forefinger and held it to the light. It was the most precious thing in the world to me, for a second, right then.

Still, I let it go. There was an air current in that room that caught it, and I watched it float above me for a minute, caught in the shafts of light from the window.

A cloud passed in front of the early morning sun. The light dimmed. I could no longer see the hair. By the time the sun once more shone through the blinds, it too had disappeared.

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